GALA RFC have insisted that their decision to not invite Watsonians and Edinburgh Accies to their annual Sevens tournament on Saturday, which is the keystone event in the club’s Maroon’d@Gala Festival, was not a direct snub to either of those clubs.
Watsonians issued a statement addressing the matter yesterday [Sunday] afternoon. It said:
“We are hugely disappointed not to be invited to compete in the Gala Sevens on Saturday for the first time in its history.
“We are proud not to have missed a ‘Kings of the 7s’ event since its inception – as a club we invest a lot of time, resource and budget into supporting the Borders Sevens circuit and will continue to do so.
“Naturally, we would hope that not having the opportunity to compete at Gala on Saturday has no bearing on our chances of competing fairly for the ‘Kings of the 7s’ title this season.
“We’ll be seeking clarification from The Border League regarding how the decision impacts the ‘Kings of the 7s’ tournament’.”
A later statement from Edinburgh Accies echoed Watsonians’ sentiment. It said:
“The club is extremely disappointed to share the news that we (alongside Watsonians) have not been invited to the year’s Gala Sevens due to a change in the tournament format.
“Accies last won the tournament in 2019, defeating Watsonians in the final, in a reverse of the 2017 final. In a social media post, Gala RFC stated that the change was caused by late withdrawals from other teams in previous years,
“The result is that we will only be competing in nine of this season’s ‘Kings of the 7s’ [tournaments], despite our consistent support of the competition since its inception. We hope, of course, that this will not affect our ability to challenge for honour as we have done in recent years.”
The Border League will meet later this week but it is not clear whether this matter will be on the agenda.
However, Gala are unhappy with the way this issue was presented by Watsonians. Speaking before the Accies statement was issued, the Gala director of rugby, Ewan Swinton, acknowledged that mistakes were made on the communication side with Watsonians and Accies only finding out that they were not invited when the tournament draw was made on a live stream last Wednesday night, but stressed that the decision to exclude the two clubs was made with the best of intentions to ensure that the tournament runs smoothly.
“There is nothing sinister about this at all,” he said. “We should have phoned or emailed somebody at Accies and Watsonians to let them know exactly what the story was and we didn’t do that, so that’s our error and something we’ll learn from.
“We understand that they are both disappointed in the context of the ‘Kings of the 7s’, and we recognise their long and appreciated history of participating on the Borders circuit. We respect that massively and I think we’ll take this as a bit of a learning exercise to be more conscious of other clubs’ position when we make decisions going forward.
“We’re disappointed that the Watsonians statement does not provide a full explanation of the reasons behind our decision to their membership or acknowledge the conversations that took place after the initial failure in communication,” he added.
A statement issued by Gala last night said: “Gala Rugby has chosen to run an eight team senior tournament this year due to previous years issues caused by late withdrawals of teams in a twelve team format.
“We have prioritised Borders team’s involvement and have included two Scots Army as they have supported the tournament in the past where teams have withdrawn in the final week. It is unfortunate that there are teams that will not be participating this year, especially some who have also been very loyal to both Gala Rugby and the wider K7s circuit, but ultimately when you are organising a community rugby event with over 60 rugby teams playing from P4 up to senior rugby, the organising committee need to secure certainty to ensure the smooth running of the event.
“We are sure everyone will have a great day nonetheless and can’t wait to welcome you all to Netherdale!”
In the last six Gala tournaments, Watsonians have won the title twice in 2016 and 2017 (when they beat Accies in the final), while Accies were champions in 2019 (beating Watsonians in the final).
Watsonians were ‘Kings of the 7s’ series champions three years on the bounce between 2017 and 2019. Edinburgh Accies finished third behind Melrose and Gala in last year’s series with Watsonians finishing fourth.
Swinton also rejected the suggestion that this incident is the latest step in a concerted push by Border clubs to distance themselves from the central belt as they tackle the nationwide issue of falling player numbers.
“It’s not my place to comment on that but all I would say is that the conversations amongst Border clubs about the many challenges we all face have been very positive and forward thinking,” he said. “It’s not about cutting ourselves off from anyone else. We’ve all got a lot of great relationships with clubs in Edinburgh and beyond, and long may that continue.”
It was announced in June that the seven Border League clubs – Hawick, Selkirk, Jed-Forest, Kelso, Gala, Melrose and Peebles – had withdrawn their 2nd XVs from the national reserve league structure so as to compete against each other in a reprised Border Junior League next season.
“The primary driver for reintroducing the league is to reduce the number of unfulfilled games which unfortunately was a regular occurrence in the previous National League arrangements,” said a statement issued by the Border Junior League at the time.
“The Border Junior League will significantly reduce the distance teams need to travel for games and, with all teams having floodlights, increase their ability to mutually agree to play games midweek. All participating clubs are hoping that these new arrangements will assist in both sustaining player retention and developing player recruitment.”
Meanwhile, it is understood that six of the seven Border League clubs have written to the SRU to inform them that they do not wish to compete in the Scottish Cup next season so that they can focus instead on a re-invigorated Border League. Reigning Premiership and Cup champions Hawick are the odd team out after their players indicated that they wanted the opportunity to defend their title.
The key drivers behind the move away from the Cup is a desire for guaranteed meaningful games from February onwards (after the league season starts to wind down), with local derbies likely to attract more interest and better gate/bar receipts than sporadic cup or friendly matches. One Border club official pointed out that the cup no longer has a sponsor so clubs must rely on 50 percent of gate profits to cover the expense of away matches, meaning that a good cup run can end up costing clubs money.
The appeal of the Cup has wained significantly across Scotland in recent years, with several games forfeited last season by clubs who were either unable or unwilling to raise teams for matches, including Watsonians pulling out of their second round trip to Marr due to insufficient front-row players and GHK choosing not to travel to Mansfield Park to face Hawick at the quarter-final stage.
All of this feeds into a wider concern that a cohesive over-arching strategy for the domestic game across Scotland from Super Series downwards (taking in season structure, player development pathways and many other key issues) needs to be developed and properly communicated as a matter of extreme urgency.
Scottish club rugby’s 15-aside season returns on 2nd September with Watsonians hosting Gala in week one of the National One campaign. It will be an interesting afternoon at Myreside.